So I should have been excited to see something positive emerge from online discussions (well, belated excitement, as I was on vacation this past weekend to Vicksburg and missed the initial discussions) regarding "essential epic fantasies." It seems that there was a Twitter-initiated round of lists done by four people, three of whom I follow on Twitter and the fourth I have no ill feelings, along with an alt-list by another writer/blogger I follow on Twitter. I note my personal feelings for the list makers here in order to make clear that this is nothing personal in regards to them, but frankly those lists were problematic at best.
The first problem I had with these lists were with the ways that the list makers chose to define "essential." It may be the pedantic literature/history teacher in me, but any "essential" literary list should be, y'know, essential for a substantial body of readers. Cherry-picking a few classics of (mostly) Western literature and then presenting them on a relatively equal footing with the likes of Brandon Sanderson, Jacqueline Carey, David Eddings, and others of their ilk is rather asinine, to be honest. For these comparisons to work, especially for those who are not enamored with the idea of "epic fantasy" being an ancient literary mode, there has to be more connections than surface-level similarities. It might seem easy to include a work such as The Epic of Gilgamesh due to its ancient roots and stories involving Sumerian myths, but the purpose of that narrative (namely that within the stories are embedded elements of Sumerian religious belief) differs wildly than a pedestrian work (OK, "pedestrian" may be considered mild by some) by David Eddings. There just are not any real solid connections made between the selections, which in turn makes these lists feel less "essential" and more like "OK, I like some rather crappy works, but in order to give my list a patina of respectability and to prove that epic fantasy can be more than the wasteland of the lesser-talented writers, I'm going to include a few world's classics that influenced writers several chains up the "love and theft" line from the Sandersons and Brooks of the world, regardless of whether or not it makes sense to mention these two groups in a single pairing." If these lists were more humbly entitled "epic fantasy favorites," it might be less attention-grabbing but also more appropriate. The books on the lists for the most part are very underwhelming, with generally only a few works written in the past 130 years that arguably should be read by well-educated readers.
Beyond the need for a better, more sound rationale for having such an "essential" set of lists in the first place, these lists (as is often the case with list generators) demonstrate the deficiencies in the list creator's own reading. This is not a pejorative in the sense that I am saying they are under-read (virtually everyone will have large reading gaps due to linguistic and cultural reasons), but a note regarding the futility of creating a comprehensive list by one's self. In reading through the lists, I found myself thinking of works that contain elements of epic mode that were not discussed. The below-listed are works that are culturally significant for large parts of the world's population:
The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas)
The Thousand and One Nights
The Epic of Sundiata
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The Norse Eddas
Leaves of Grass
Gerusalemme Conquista (Jerusalem Conquered)
Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
Tales of Genji
La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream)
With Fire and Sword
Gargantua and Pantagruel
Even these are a tiny fraction of the memorable songs/dramas/poems/prose that are romances/use epic mode/phrases/imagery. But most come from other traditions than Protestant-tinted Anglo-Saxon sources. Some of the concerns differ from what Anglophones may be accustomed to, but each is much more "essential" when it comes to (inter)national literary traditions than any list of 1970s-2013 works will likely ever approach.
Considering that it is an almost Sisyphean task to devise a list of 10-50 "essentials" of the "epic fantasy" mode ("epic fantasy" being in scare quotes due to questions regarding its uniformity of form), what should be done beyond dropping "essential" from the title? Perhaps there should be more reflection on the implied form of "epic fantasy" itself? What value does that term possess today outside of its (pejorative) connotation of being the realm of barely pubescent youth, mostly Westerners in cultural traditions, who view it as the literary equivalent of the bombastic music of 1970s hard rock musicians such as Led Zeppelin (n.b. I actually enjoy Zeppelin's music despite their shortcomings in the lyrics and treatment of women departments)? That is the question that perhaps should be addressed more fully before setting out to write out lists that are questionable in their contents and in their cultural value, at least for those who did not grow up enamored with pulp fictions.